JUDGE: ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

Following the success of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, I’d Do Anything and Any Dream Will Do, Andrew Lloyd Webber is back to trawl the length and breadth of the UK for performers with extraordinary talent.

One of the richest men in the UK, the 61-year-old composer has written some of the greatest musicals of all time including The Phantom Of The Opera, Cats, Evita, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Starlight Express, Sunset Boulevard, The Woman In White and Aspects Of Love – and recently launched his new musical Love Never Dies.

What are you looking for in a Dorothy?

“I think this is our toughest challenge yet. Our Dorothy has to be young and rebellious and funny. She has to be a great actress with a great sense of humour and be able to sing brilliantly. She also has to be capable of holding centre-stage – she’s virtually never off-stage during the whole show. And that’s before I even get to the real list of qualities I’m looking for! She doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful. The main thing she has to do is break your heart. The show is about a bored teenager from Kansas who wants to get away from home, but ends up discovering that home is where the heart is. Our Dorothy has to take us on that journey. It would be fabulous if we found a modern version of Judy Garland.”

Why are these programmes so successful?

“These shows have genuinely struck a chord with people. It really works when TV audiences can identify with the role you’re casting. People also love the fact that they feel part of the process of choosing a performer for something they can actually go and see. People know that the girl who wins Over The Rainbow will be on stage and they’ll be able to see her for the next 18 months, or whatever. Because of that, people invest more and take the voting far more seriously.”

And have they had much impact on the West End?

“There was one moment last year when all five finalists from I’d Do Anything had lead roles in West End musicals. They were in five different shows that I had nothing to do with! That was an extraordinary moment. There has been a complete sea change over the past four years. That struck me with a vengeance when I was at the auditions for Over The Rainbow. When we did How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? four years ago, very few young people aspired to do musical theatre, but now 16-year-old kids are desperate to be in these shows. There are now at least 10,000 kids who aspire to be on the musical theatre stage. They’ve also acquired a lot of great skills. Watching them audition now, that immediately hits one in the gut. The fact is, these programmes have turned a whole generation on to musical theatre. And it’s not just musical theatre that has benefited. The West End overall has had its best ever season three years in a row since we started doing these programmes. I’m on the ground floor, and I’ve seen it happen. It’s a whole new ball game now – and I couldn’t be happier about it!”

Do you get on with Graham Norton?

“Graham and I both want the same thing – which is the best for the artists. He gets even more upset than I do when one has to leave the show. Graham is one of the wittiest people I know, but he’s also prepared to play a lead in a West End show, La Cage Aux Folles. Certain presenters are unlikely to be cast as West End leads. But it shows Graham’s love of performing. He understands things from the performers’ point of view.”

You are a famous cat lover? Are you enjoying searching for a Toto for your new show?

“All these Totos have been thrust in my direction. As a cat man, it’s been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do!”

Finally, this is your fourth show for the BBC. Are you still enjoying the experience?

“I don’t sit there in the TV studio with some grand strategy, I’m there because I love it. I’m delighted to be there because I think we’ve helped make musical theatre cool again.”

PRESENTER: GRAHAM NORTON

46-year old presenter Graham Norton is presiding over the fourth in a successful run of searches for new musical theatre stars – having already presented How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything. He presents a chat show for the BBC and  in January last year made his West End debut as Albin in the musical La Cage Aux Folles.

How does this search differ from the others?

“It’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever set the public. Dorothy is such an iconic role, and it’s so difficult to get beyond the associations with Judy Garland – no one has ever come close.”

How do people auditioning compare to previous years?

“The standard is phenomenally high, I’m really impressed by the overall level. Everyone who’s gone through can really sing – it’s quite extraordinary. We’re now down to the last 50, and there is not a single dud among them. No one out of the final 110 was bad – they could all do it. Finding the best 50 was really hard. As we told some of them, ‘I’m afraid you’re not going to Dorothy Farm,’ they would sob. We had to remind them: ‘Look, you’re really good. Thousands of people went for this and you got down to the last 100 or so!'”

We hear a lot of young people have auditioned this year.

“We had a lot of 16-year-olds. I worried beforehand that they might not be able to handle it – I remember what I was like at 16 and I would never have been able to cope at that age. But I needn’t have worried. We had call-backs at the Hackney Empire, which is a massive 2,000-seat theatre. These tiny girls were walking out on stage in this big, gaping cavern and saying, ‘this is my dream,’ before performing brilliantly. They were so self-possessed. They were just 12 when these shows started back in 2006, and now they’re starring in them!”.

Has that changed the tone of this year’s show?

“The vibe on this show has been much nicer. Because a lot of older women auditioned to play Nancy, there was a much stronger whiff of despair on I’d Do Anything. If someone is 40, they may not have many more opportunities left to make it in musical theatre. But if someone is 17, it’s much easier to say goodbye to them because you know they’ll have hundreds more opportunities.”

What kind of Dorothy would you cast?

“The winner will require a great range of characteristics. She will have to be innocent and vulnerable, as well as tough as old boots! If you cast someone who is too much of a little girl, she’ll get lost in Oz. Dorothy is competing in Oz with an awful lot of scenery, as well as men in lion, tin and scarecrow suits. You have to be quite a performer to compete with that!”

And how do you get on with ALW?!

“What I love about him most is that he’s such a relentless enthusiast. He retains such a passion for what he does. Also, he and I tend to have similar opinions about the contestants.”

PANELIST:  SHEILA HANCOCK

Sheila Hancock is an award-winning actress and best-selling author, and is currently appearing in big West End musical Sister Act as Mother Superior.

Why did you decide to join the panel for Over The Rainbow?

I thought long and hard about doing this show. Having talked to people involved in previous series, and learning that there is a proper ‘process’ to the show, a proper ‘training’ if you will, and hearing how well the contestants are looked after, coached and advised, it felt like something I’d like to be involved in.

Of course it’s a TV show, and family entertainment, but its roots are in the casting process and an acknowledgment of how hard a career in musical theatre is going to be. It’s also one of the only shows on television that show off live musical theatre and how great it can be.

Are you looking forward to working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Of course, in this field he is a world leader, so it’s lovely to be working with him.

What are you looking forward to most about working on the show?

Watching the contestants evolve, being there for them and the possibility that Dorothy and some of the other girls will have successful careers I can follow.

What kind of qualities are you looking for in the contestants?

You have to believe her. That’s it at the end of the day. It’s difficult for someone like me who remembers seeing the film originally to erase the image of Judy Garland so I will be looking for someone who can bring a believable new characterisation to the role. Technically there’s a long list of things she has to be able to do but what I want to see is someone who makes every audience member, night after night, care about Dorothy and her journey.

What is your role on the panel? What kind of panellist are you?

I hope I’ll be fair and honest, and be able to detect potential.

How do you know when you’ve found your ‘Dorothy’ – who is your ideal Dorothy? And Toto?

The thing with Dorothy, and I think one of the essential reasons both the character and film have become so iconic, is that she is a good person. She loves her family, she cares about the people around her, she’s open to the world despite being naive to it and she is almost entirely positive, all wonderful qualities.

To find an actress who can convey that, combined of course with talent that’s required of a huge part like this, is the ultimate aim.

Toto is a sticking point for me, I’m not a great fan of dogs, they tend to bite me! I’ve suggested my cat Stanley does the role, in a dog coat!

You’ve had a hugely successful theatre and musical theatre career. Which was your favourite role to play?

To play Mrs Lovett in one of the best musicals ever written, Sweeny Todd, at Drury Lane was hugely fulfilling but on the whole my favourite roles are the ones I’m currently playing so at the moment it’s the Mother Superior in Sister Act at the London Palladium.

How do you think your experiences of musical theatre will help budding performers on Over The Rainbow?

I always approach musicals as an actor who sings so I hope that I’ll be able to help with really interpreting the lyrics. The other two judges have different experiences so I hope we can all complement each other to guide, support and be honest with the girls.

What character out of the Wizard of Oz would you like to be?

The Wizard-ess of Oz!

PANELIST: CHARLOTTE CHURCH

Charlotte Church is one of the UK’s most successful performers, having achieved national success at only 11 years old. She has gone on to record a number of multi-million selling albums, star in TV and films and present a successful chat show for Channel 4.

Why did you decide to join the panel for Over The Rainbow?

I’m a big fan of the previous shows Andrew has made and a big fan of Andrew’s work in general.

Are you looking forward to working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Very much so. He’s an icon of the music business and Pie Jesu, which Andrew wrote, started my career off.

What are you looking forward to most about working on the show?

Getting dressed up each week and hearing some terrific voices.

What kind of qualities are you looking for in the contestants?

A beautiful voice and all the right emotions to suit the part.

What is your role on the panel? What kind of panellist are you?

We will have to see. I’ve never been a judge before.

How do you know when you’ve found your ‘Dorothy’ – who is your ideal Dorothy? And Toto?

In an ideal world, someone who could give Garland a run for her money. Not so sure about who could play Toto.

How does it feel returning to work following a break?

I’m looking forward to it. I’m very lucky in that I can bring the children to work with me.

You’ve had a hugely successful performing career. How do you think your experiences will help budding performers on Over The Rainbow?

Well, I certainly know what pressure and nerves feel like.

What character out of the Wizard Of Oz would you like to be and why?

The Wizard of course! He helps to solve Dorothy’s problems by using common sense.

PANELIST: JOHN PARTRIDGE

John Partridge is an actor who is currently starring as Christian Clarke in BBC One’s EastEnders. He has performed in numerous plays and musicals including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Starlight Express and the national tour of Miss Saigon.

Why did you decide to join the panel for Over The Rainbow?

The obvious answer is as a friend of Dorothy I should have some insight, but in reality, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

Are you looking forward to working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Of course – Andrew is a legend. The ‘Don’ of musical theatre.

What are you looking forward to most about working on the show?

The chance of finding new musical talent.

What kind of qualities are you looking for in the contestants?

I’m looking for a triple threat – someone who can sing, dance and act equally!

What is your role on the panel? What kind of panellist are you?

I will try to be as honest and truthful as I can – sometimes the truth hurts!

You’ve had a successful musical theatre career. What roles have you played, and which was your favourite?

I’ve played many roles over 20 years, and have loved them all for so many different reasons.

How do you think your experiences of musical theatre will help budding performers on Over The Rainbow?

I went into Cats at 16, so I know the pressure that a young performer is under.

What character out of the Wizard Of Oz would you like to be?

I would love to be the King of the Flying Monkeys!

All interviews courtesy of the BBC